What follows is a summary of a presentation I delivered to the World Education Congress of Meeting Planners International in Vancouver, Canada at the end of July, 2010. This was part of a series of “Flash” presentations, each limited to 15 minutes, which didn’t leave a lot of time to elaborate. I’ve fleshed some of the points out here, but the most important reason for approaching the future in this way is that it is never shaped by just one thing, but rather by a confluence of forces, many of which are conflicting.
The next 10 years will dramatically change your life and almost everything in it. And while there are lots of things likely to change, I’d like to focus on 10 that will be of particular importance to you personally, to our society, and to the meeting planners generally.
Someone always benefits from change – and those who will benefit most will be those who prepare most successfully for what’s to come. Since I’m necessarily going to have to be brief, I would encourage you to contact me if you’d like to discuss any or all of these 10 points.
1. Everyday robots
The first thing you need to know is that we are about to experience the emergence of what might be called “everyday robots” and computer intelligences. We’ve been raised on the idea of robots, and they’ve always been just beyond the horizon, like flying cars, vacations on the moon, and the three-day workweek. We grew up with pulp fiction fantasies about what robots would be like, such as Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons, the Terminator from the governor’s mansion in California, or the classic Isaac Asimov I, Robot series of stories. But over the next 10 years, we are going to experience an increase in computing power of roughly 1000 times, and that means that that the hesitant, clumsy robots that are now appearing in laboratories will get dramatically better over the next decade, improving about as quickly as an 18 month-old toddler improves at walking. Robots will first be used with applications in the military, police, health care, and be created by hobbyists for fun. Much of the non-military development is in Japan, because they have, by many measures, the oldest population in the world, and need arms and legs to do things.
Aside from the sex trade, which seems to soak up new technologies and harness them for sexploitation, the development of robots for civilian use will start primarily in the workplace, especially in fields like health care. (I’ll deal with sex robots at a later date, because they are a real prospect.) It will take time for robots to come to households, because they will cost about as much as a car. But the business potential of another household possession in a field that may become as important as the automotive industry is going to drive development. And along with everyday robots, we will also get computer intelligences that rival human intelligence in certain, tightly defined areas. This leads to my second point.
2. Dramatic increases in productivity
Related to the rise of robots will be automation and dramatic increases in productivity, which has several implications. The first is that increased productivity will lead to cheaper goods and services, which will produce a substantial increase in your standard of living and a much higher level of wealth – if you have a job or occupation. But greater productivity also implies that companies won’t need to employ as many people, which will mean that many jobs will disappear, replaced by automation.
Traditionally, automation has led to new jobs with better wages and prospects appearing, and that will happen – but these new jobs will also require more education, more intellect, and more creativity. This means that people who don’t have appropriate skill sets will become chronically unemployed or underemployed. This could make it even harder for young people, just finishing their formal educations, to get their feet on the bottom rungs of the employment ladder.
In the meeting industry, it also means smart tools for planning your conferences and running your business. Think of having an automated assistant that can do a lot of the routine work in organizing a conference, including the routine interactions with hotels, travel agencies, printers, communicating with conferees, and so on, leaving you to do the tougher creative work, and to focus on the human, interpersonal aspects of your job
3. The ascent of women
Next is the ascent of women and different ways of doing business. The first part of this is the decline of men, as men seem to be harmed more by environmental degradation than women. Based on research that is only just starting to emerge, two to four times more boys than girls are afflicted by attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity disorders in America. Sperm counts are dropping in many parts of the world, and testosterone levels are lower. Testicular cancer is higher in many places. And the birth rate of boys in many countries, including America and Japan, is far lower than statistical variance should allow. We don’t really know why this is happening, but researchers are theorizing that males are more vulnerable to new chemicals, such as synthetic hormones, that are making their way into the biosphere.
Meanwhile, girls have better roles models now than ever before in our society, up to, but not quite including president of the United States. More businesses are being started by women than men, and the businesses started by women are more likely to survive, so that over time, more and more businesses will be headed by women. But the clincher is that almost 60% of college and university students are women, and the ratio is even higher in most graduate fields. As a result, a steadily rising share of tomorrow’s leaders will be women, which will lead to a cultural shift. Without being too glib, I think it’s safe to say that women have a different way of thinking and acting in the world than men, and this power shift to women is going to change the way our society – and this industry – behaves.
4. The health care revolution
Point four is the health care revolution, starting with customized drugs and treatments. Herceptin is a drug used to treat breast cancer – but it is only used with patients that have two particular genetic markers. If you don’t have these two specific genetic characteristics, there’s no point in giving you Herceptin, because it won’t help you. And it’s the precursor of customized drugs. They will be dramatically more effective – and, at least initially, dramatically more expensive as well because the research costs will have to be spread over a much smaller population.
Meanwhile, decoding your personal DNA is rapidly becoming affordable. You can already get genetic tests that show whether you are susceptible to certain kinds of diseases, such as Alzheimers, ALS ( Lou Gherig’s disease), or Huntington’s. But whereas it took decades, and billions of dollars to decode the first human genome, within 10 years, having your personal genome fully decoded will cost about $1000 or less, and take a few hours, bringing it into the realm of the possible. And this cascade of data about you will, gradually, allow us not only to ascertain what diseases you need to guard against, but also which lifestyle choices, including foods, will work best for you.
And a third leg of the future of health care is the wearable computer companion to monitor your health and guard against threats. There are already smartphone applications to monitor heart rate, blood sugar, calories burned, and so on. These are going to become increasingly sophisticated, and will, over time, become dedicated to monitoring your health, heartbeat-by-heartbeat, and intervening as necessary to reduce the risks of health crises, such as heart attacks or strokes, as well as to advise you on optimal health management.
These three things, combined with electronic health records, will, over time, produce the greatest tool for health treatment and research humanity has ever had: a global system to identify health risks, and find cures or treatments for them in something approaching real time. And I fully expect that they will eventually lead to life expectancies of 120 years and more, although this development will take much more than just 10 years. Which leads me to my next point.
Like my previous point, this is going to start over the next 10 years, but will carry on into the indefinite future as we learn more, and figure out what to do with what we know. Transhumanism is the school of thought that science and technology are going to allow us to first cope with disabilities, and then to augment and exceed our natural abilities. Some of this, such as stem cell therapies, will mean using biological mechanisms to repair our own bodies. Beyond that, transhumanism also projects that we will use artificial means to augment our abilities. It has already started with devices that help us survive. Some, like heart pacemakers, have been around for decades. Others, like brain pacemakers to prevent seizures, are relatively new. Next are prosthetics. Of course, the oldest prosthetics, like peg legs and hook hands, have been around since Disney invented pirates, but I’m talking about arms and legs controlled by thoughts and nerves. Prosthetic arms & legs will act and seem natural.
As we move towards computers that can read your intentions and interpret your thoughts, we get into interesting man-machine combinations. Eventually we will be able to choose, by an act of will, to control distant machines and mechanisms by thought. We’ll be able to use the power of computers to augment the speed with which we think, and the depth of things we can “remember.” Imagine, for instance, being able to Google something on the Internet just by thinking a query, and getting the answer either whispered into your ear, or displayed on contact lenses on your eyes that act as a computer monitor. There are already prototypes of precursors of these things, from thought-controlled wheelchairs for paraplegics, to memory glasses that can remind the forgetful who the person in front of them is. As I said, this is a brand new field, so I doubt if you’ll need to worry about the Borg just yet.
6. Critical economic uncertainties
The headlines this spring have centered on whether we’re likely to have a double-dip recession, and the financial and fiscal crises of the PIIGS of Europe (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). These uncertainties are caused by too much debt borrowed by consumers and governments alike.
Having too much debt is like having a rowboat that’s heavily loaded – it doesn’t take much to swamp it completely, and it doesn’t have much resilience. Moreover, it takes a long time to bail out of debt, so these problems are not going to go away overnight. Accordingly, in your plans and planning, I would strongly recommend that you be prepared for repeated, periodic shocks and crises that lead to financial upheaval, and economic slowdowns or outright recessions over the next decade. Believe me, I don’t like this prospect, but I think it’s better to be prepared for shocks than to be caught by surprise by them. You need to have plans in place for dealing with such upheavals and slowdowns, or else you’ll be flattened by them.
7. Growing political and social turmoil
In addition to the potential for new crises and turmoil in the global economy and global markets, there is also the potential for increased financial and political turmoil in the developed countries. Not only is the U.S. federal government, among other nations, running up unprecedented amounts of debt, increasing its financial vulnerability, but many of America’s individual states are in a squeeze. This is happening not just because of the Great Recession, but also because they’ve been too generous with pensions and benefits to their retirees over the years. For example, by 2018, the state of Illinois will have to pay $14 billion a year for benefits for retired state employees, which is more than a third of the state’s total revenues, and could bankrupt it, much as happened to General Motors.
And in a larger sense, there are going to be growing conflicts between public sector retirees, who mostly have decent pensions, and private sector retirees, who mostly don’t yet will be paying taxes to support their civil servant neighbors. As well, there will be conflict between aging boomers, who will vote for generous Social Security payments and unlimited health care, and their children who will be paying taxes for benefits they don’t believe they will ever receive. Accordingly, the political situation in most developed countries will likely get worse – hard as that is to believe!
8. Climate change accelerates
Within 10 years, the debate on climate change will be effectively over except for those who are willfully choosing to ignore evidence. It’s already clear from changes happening in the polar regions that climate change is happening, and climatologists are astonished by how fast they are occurring. Change may come not only more rapidly than we expect, but faster than we can adapt. I suspect we’re in for a wild ride, and that will almost certainly force changes on us that we will find difficult. We will also find some changes that are helpful, such as longer growing seasons in parts of North America – particularly the northern tier of Midwestern American states and the Prairies of Canada – IF we get the right rainfall patterns, which may also change. But it’s also clear that many of the changes will be harmful to us and the way we live.
I also suspect it is going to force us to make significant changes to our lifestyles, imposing Green Economy ideals on even disbelievers. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, because another name for “pollution” is “waste,” and by decreasing waste, we can actually increase profits. Specifically for the meeting industry, I would suggest that we need to develop a “green index” to indicate the environmental cost per participant of conferences as a means of first measuring, then pushing for improved efficiencies.
9. The energy revolution
We’ve already seen with natural gas that new technologies can revolutionize even well-established industries – but that’s not going to be enough. If you look at the long-term cost of oil over the past 150 years, you can see that, with the added demand from rapidly developing countries like China and India, coupled with the sheer volume of energy we need to add each year just to maintain our lifestyles, we will push up the price of oil at a remarkable rate – at least for the next several years, until we come up with good energy substittues.
Now, let me reassure you – we are not running out of oil, because almost ¾ of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. We haven’t discovered or exploited the vast majority of the oil under that water. But we are running out of cheap oil. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an example of the problems ahead. More expensive petroleum will provoke us to develop new ways of using energy more efficiently – so called “negawatts” – as well as developing new sources of energy. It’s astonishing what demand for a critical resource can do, but it’s going to take time to displace oil from the center of our energy equation.
For this industry, though, it’s also going to mean that travel is going to become more expensive. We will see more moves towards virtual meetings, more local meetings, and regional satellite meetings that combine through telecommunications into national conventions. Start thinking about, and looking for ways of stretching travel dollars, because it’s going to be a fact of life.
10. The purpose of life
When people ask the question, “What is the purpose of life?”, they are starting off in the wrong direction with an improperly formed question. This is not a question at all, but a statement: Life is purpose. Without purpose, there is no life.
But this raises a different question: What’s my purpose? And this is a question that can’t be answered by looking out there, but in here, inside yourself. I got this from a wise man, Viktor Frankl, in a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. And here’s the question he posed that you should ask yourself: “It’s not a matter of what you can expect of life, but what can life expect of you?” It may be that you think your purpose is to bring home a paycheck, and that’s certainly important. But I would urge you to stop and think about what life can expect of you, what you feel is your calling, and then be guided by this sense of purpose.
The decade ahead is going to be radically, remarkably, dangerously different than any period you’ve lived through or have experience with. And it’s going to offer opportunities that you cannot now anticipate. If you don’t have a clear sense of where you are going and why, and are not prepared for the challenges we face and the opportunities ahead, you will be devastated by what’s to come.
Someone always benefits from change. Let it be you.
Good luck, and God speed. Thank you.